Warning to Jesus, Paul and the socially conscious Christian: Your religion’s fine until you start messing with our business

A hot sun shines down on the port town of Kucadasi in Turkey today. A thriving city on the Asian side of the country, Kucadasi was well below ocean level 2,000 years ago, when the Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, at 250,000 people, was one of the biggest cities in the Roman empire. One of those people, on occasion, was Paul of Tarsus, the man largely responsible for turning Christianity from a subset of messianic Judaism into a religion for all people regardless of the religion into which they were born.

My parents and I are on a tour of Greece and Turkey (how lucky am I?!) and I read bits of the Bible about Paul in preparation for today’s trip to Ephesus, but here’s how the tour guide described Paul’s presence there:

“Here we stand before the Forum, where public speeches and theater occurred. This site is important to Christians because St. Paul spoke here. He said a lot of things to upset people in Ephesus, because he taught things in this new Christian religion like God believed all people were equal; imagine saying to a Roman citizen that he and his slave were equal. So Paul gave secret speeches to his followers in the marketplace  (pointing to a spot 50 meters away) during the hot afternoons when most people were on siesta. When he had enough followers he came here to this public forum.”

And here’s where I want you to pay attention to the tour guide and not get distracted by the scenery:

“He really upset the silver smiths. Remember most Ephesians were pagans–they believed in multiple gods. And some silver smiths made their money selling statues of the mother goddess of Ephesus, Artemis, to locals and sailors. So when Paul started preaching that paganism and idols were sinful, the head silver smith started a riot. Ephesians didn’t adopt Christianity for another 300 years for that reason. And who can really blame the silver smiths? Imagine you make your living selling statues and someone tries to get people to stop buying them; what would you do?”

I’m not always a fan of Paul. Paul’s letters are my three least favorite P’s: preachy, pedantic and paternalistic. You can tell from his reading between the lines that he establishes relationships with communities that seem to like him before he starts writing these 3-P letters and that he’s genuinely fond of the churches he’s writing. He also says some really ignorant stuff about women (and before you tell me I’m picking and choosing, Paul himself acknowledges that some of what he says is straight from the Big Guy while other stuff is his well informed opinion). On a good day I will concede that Paul’s scolding tone is the result of his genuine concern for the community’s right way of living and for their salvation. And usually he’s saying stuff like don’t be tattle tales or whiners, don’t make Christianity look bad by behaving badly, don’t do things that will tempt others to do bad things, and don’t impose arbitrary rules on people when that makes you lose sight of what really matters: love.

So I’m struck by the fact that the reason Paul is nearly killed in Ephesus isn’t pure religious dogma (monotheism was okay with the Roman empire until those stubborn Jews and Christians refused to acknowledge Caesar as a god); it was because his religious teachings were (possibly unintentionally) threatening a powerful financial group. I picture Paul saying today, “It’s sinful to use credit cards because God tells us to rely on the resources we have today alone,” and the banks finding a way to discredit or eliminate him.

Does this story remind you of anyone?

A story almost everyone knows about Jesus is when he cleanses the temple of money changers. You can read it as a demand for religious purity. You can read it as a reminder that anger is not automatically a bad emotion if Jesus experienced it. You can (and I do) read it as an act of radical equality–prices were marked up in the temple and poor people couldn’t afford to make offerings at the temple; perhaps Jesus was outraged that the temple had become a place where rich people got to have access to more and better prayer intervention than poor people.

Regardless of how you read it, though, it really ticked off people who profited from the sale of pigeons and goats and any other offerings you could buy. It alienated the people who exchanged Roman coins for Jewish coins (the only kind accepted inside the temple and, if I remember correctly, not much use in other marketplaces). Presumably it also impacted the priests and Jewish leaders (the Pharisees and Saducees, although we lump them together as Christians today, were two very distinct groups with very different philosophies but shared leadership of the Jewish community–imagine someone threatening our nation’s leadership so much that Democrats and Republicans joined hands to shut him or her down!) The wheels were really set in motion that day for Jesus’ death that day.

It was actually the Ephesian city manager who calmed the riot by telling the crowd that Artemis was still patron goddess of Ephesus and people needed to get a grip; if the silver smiths wanted to lodge a complaint, they cold do so through the legal system. Paul cut his losses and got out of Dodge.

As I look at the Turkish flag hang listlessly at the Kucadesi arena on this warm autumn afternoon, I think about the ways Christianity has been made less threatening to those in power in order to spread. I think about how the lessons of Jesus were broadened but shallowed by Paul himself and how they keep getting shallower in order to draw more people. I think about the economic inequality within and between Muslim states as I look at that red flag with a yellow crescent and star and suspect the same might be true of Islam, since the Q’uran does not take a gentle line with people who mistreat the poor.

I sometimes wonder if the fact that we’re a majority religion anywhere suggests we’re doing something wrong. And I wonder what Christianity would look like if its practitioners were actually courageous enough to speak out against the sins of consumerism and selfishness that actually end up lining the pockets of people far richer than ourselves. I think we would be much more vital today. And I also suspect that, like Paul, we’d be running for our lives a lot of the time.

Since I’m on vacation, I think I’ll soak in the sedentary form of Christianity for a few days more.

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